Content Marketing Grows Up – Sort Of

The Content Marketing Institute’s latest benchmark study, released last week, paints a largely positive picture of the progress B2B marketers are making with their content marketing efforts. But there are a few red flags in the results that underscore ongoing challenges – and opportunities for marketers to improve their content-driven strategies.

The CMI study, an annual must-read for content marketers, found that 89% of B2B companies are using content marketing, up 1% from last year’s survey. Respondents fall into a typical bell curve of content marketing maturity:

  • 6% consider themselves sophisticated, providing accurate measurement to the business and scaling across the organization.
  • 22% say they’re at a mature stage: Finding success, yet challenged with integration across the organization.
  • 35% are at the adolescent stage: They’ve developed a business case, are seeing early success, and are becoming more sophisticated with measurement and scaling.
  • 26% are still experiencing growing pains, challenged with creating a cohesive strategy and a measurement plan.
  • 10% are taking their first steps, but have not yet begun to make content marketing a process.

Content Marketing Maturity Level

The top two levels, notably, are down 4% from last year’s survey. Digging into the data uncovers a few contradictions that signal unresolved pain points.

Red Flag #1: Resources vs. Results

Nearly two-thirds (63%) of B2B marketers say they are very or extremely committed to content marketing, and 62% say their content marketing efforts are more successful than they were a year ago. Nearly 4 in 10 expect to increase content marketing spending over the next 12 months.

However, just 22% view their overall content marketing approach as very or extremely successful. And 59% are unsure about what an effective or successful content marketing program even looks like – a 4% jump from a year ago.

Misaligned metrics are likely contributing to this lack of clarity. The most popular content marketing metric in the CMI survey is website traffic – a trap that publishers fell into a long time ago. Eyeballs do not denote success, particularly for marketers who are trying to lead prospects into the sales funnel. Far fewer respondents say they look at engagement metrics such as social media sharing, time spent, and subscriber/community growth, or even lower-funnel metrics such as sales or other conversions.

Red Flag #2: Quality vs. Quantity

Marketers have made positive progress shifting from tactical content creation and distribution to a more strategic approach. More organizations are documenting their content marketing strategy (37% this year vs. 32% a year ago), and another 41% say they have a strategy that is not documented.

Just 35%, however, say they’ve figured out a way to scale their strategy. The scale challenge, as one of our presidential candidates might say, is huge. While three-quarters say they frequently prioritize content quality over quantity, 70% say they plan to produce more content this year than last.

Another just-released study, from the Economist Group, found that 80% of marketers plan to increase the amount they produce in the coming 12 months.

Ever-increasing volumes of content will make it even harder for brands to rise above the clutter. Marketers know they must continue to feed the insatiable content beast – but by doing so they increase the risk of being tuned out.

In the Economist study, three-quarters of executives (aka the targets of content marketing) said they’ve become more selective about the thought leadership content they consume, with 82% citing volume as the reason.

As a result, the Economist report concludes, the majority of thought leadership content goes to waste.

Red Flag #3: Acquisition vs. Engagement

In the CMI study, lead generation (80%) and brand awareness (79%) emerged as B2B marketers’ top two organizational goals for content marketing over the next 12 months. Nearly half (49%) are looking at these top-of-funnel activities to measure content marketing ROI.

Less of a priority are customer retention/loyalty and customer evangelism, among other tactics. Just 22% say they measure post-sale ROI. Mid-funnel activities are lagging as well: Just 35% track ROI around developing relationships with qualified leads and existing customers.

Measuring Content Marketing ROI

The Opportunity

It’s well established that brands have become publishers. But it’s no longer enough for marketers to act like publishers by churning out content – they need to start thinking like them, too.

Jay Acunzo, founder and host of a content marketing podcast called Unthinkable, touched on this during a presentation at last month’s Niche Digital Conference. Acunzo noted that publishing is becoming marketers’ most important skill – but when marketers have questions about publishing, they tend to ask other marketers. Instead, he reasoned, they should be asking their media partners – the ones with decades of publishing experience.

Excellent advice! Successful publishers know how to attract, engage, and retain audiences – that’s certainly how IDG built the many successful brands in its portfolio. Just like publishers, marketers need to create compelling content – at scale – that not only gets the audience’s attention, but provides value to them and convinces them to stay, or return.

Marketers are making progress in turning content into a more strategic component of their overall marketing programs. But those who remain weighed down by traditional acquisition-focused models won’t fully realize the value that high-quality content can bring to the entire customer journey.


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